“Two Cities” is the shorthand used for Cities of London & Westminster, the parliamentary constituency from which a truly staggering proportion of the UK’s economic output is produced – perhaps as much as six per cent of it within boundaries that encompass almost all of the West End and the entire Square Mile. And “Two Cities” also provides a handy handle, appropriated from Charles Dickens, for many prominent accounts of modern London – versions of the capital in which contrasts between wealth and want are ever more stark and for which “London” serves as a damning symbol.
These cross-woven strands of London, its composite character and the ways in which it is seen, formed both background and foreground of Tuesday’s breakfast hustings, featuring four candidates for what, for the first time, is a crucial general election marginal with the battle over Brexit at its core.
Westminster Council leader Nickie Aiken is defending for the Tories, though she is not the incumbent. Mark Field had held the seat since 2001, but announced in October he would be standing down. This came in the wake of his physical ejection of a female Greenpeace activist from a black-tie City do and subsequent suspension as a foreign office minister.
The incident would have cast a shadow, even though Field apologised to the woman concerned and no further action was taken, including by the police. But the reason he gave for standing down was Brexit: “The truth is that emotionally and geopolitically I still believe in my heart that the UK would be better served by remaining in or very closely aligned to the EU”. Another London MP who knows Field well puts it this way: “He couldn’t have stomached backing Boris Johnson’s deal on the doorstep.”
Like Field, Aiken voted Remain in 2016, as did an estimated 72 per cent of her potential constituents. But she showed no similar inhibitions at the hustings in Victoria’s stately Goring Hotel, an event jointly organised for their members by the London Chamber of Commerce & Industry and the Federation of Small Businesses. “Regardless of how each of us voted, the consistent voice of business has been the need for certainty,” Aiken said. “That is what a majority Conservative government will provide.” She contrasted this with, in particular, the Liberal Democrats’ “revoke” approach, which she deemed “likely to lead to public unrest”. She has taken her party’s Boris deal pledge.
Labour’s Gordon Nardell spoke next. Aiken, who wore a skirt, had chosen to stand rather than speak from the bar stool perch supplied. “These seats aren’t conducive to being a lady, I’m afraid,” she had remarked. Nardell wore a suit, but he gallantly dismounted “in fairness” and in recognition of Aiken’s difficulty. He was not selected by his local party, which, according to one Westminster Labourite, is just as well: that person regards the Two Cities CLP as a disaster zone. Its risky original choice, “Red Rev” Steven Saxby, was dropped out last month after being suspended. Nardell, a local QC, was chosen by a panel comprising members of Labour’s national executive committee and regional board as well as local members under Labour’s emergency selection procedures. There’s another bit of history here: in 2018, Nardell was appointed by Labour to advise the party on its problem with antisemitism in the ranks, but left that role in July amid criticism of his contribution by the Jewish Labour Movement.
At the hustings he made a fluent case for his party’s plans for the economy before this audience of private sector employers, large and small. Austerity, he said, had made things harder for businesses as it had “choked off demand”, reducing incomes so that “people can’t afford to buy goods and services”. Stressing that he had campaigned for Remain, he described Brexit as a “Conservative vanity project” that’s having ill-effects already, notably in the construction sector. “Deflationary economics” would end under a Labour government, Nardell said. “We want a high wage, high demand, high skills economy”. He made a big pitch for Labour’s eye-catching “free broadband” policy, calling it “public realm for the 21st century” and unquestionably “good for business”.
Green Party candidate Zack Polanksi spoke next, insisting this “has to be the climate election” and marrying this stance with the familiar Green case that his is “the natural party of small business”. He said his present daytime job is acting, and that he’s also been a dancer and a waiter. He has small business experience as a cognitive hypnotherapist and a recent political pedigree as a Liberal Democrat. Polanski ran for the London Assembly for that party in 2016, finishing fourth in Barnet & Camden. Since then, he’s been a prominent Extinction Rebellion activist. He told the hustings audience: “We need to absolutely transform our economy. We need an economy that is rooted in the heart of its community. We need business that has a living purpose. And we need to make sure that we’re connected to the roots of everything that’s happening.”
Fourth and last came Chuka Umunna, the now former MP for Streatham. He arrived late, apologising with a quip about infrastructure challenges. Umunna, of course, has changed parties even more recently than Polanski, first leaving Labour for Change UK early this year before throwing in his lot with the Lib Dems. London-born, he recalled working for businesses in the constituency as a teenager and described London as “one of the great symbols to the world for liberal, international progressive values,” but also as a place with “huge inequalities” and one where businesses are struggling.
This is “a Brexit election”, he said. He highlighted four Lib Dem policies: the “commercial land levy” that would replace business rates and mean “we don’t end up penalising businesses that add to the capital value of their business workplaces, which we want people to do to make sure they are more productive”; he voiced support for Crossrail 2 and High Speed 2; for more investment in technical and vocational skills by way of a £10,000 per person “skills wallet“; and for an expanded British Business Bank, providing help for SMEs. He summed up by stressing the importance of a government with an industrial strategy that means it works properly with the private sector.
The candidates’ widescreen opening pitches were appropriate both for the occasion and in view of the extraordinary importance to the nation of what goes on in the space Two Cities occupies. The first question from the audience, though, asked by a man from a travel management company, addressed another side of the constituency’s life: homelessness and rough sleeping. What would candidates do about that, if elected?
Umunna identified a “cocktail of issues” that need to be addressed, including building more social homes and addressing mental health problems and substance abuse. He regretted that support services in these areas have been so greatly “cut over the last five or ten years.” Polanski, who is a property guardian near Oxford Circus, said he would like to see the “tens of thousands of empty properties in the centre of London” used to house the homeless: “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to pair those things up and get those people into those homes.”
Nardell agreed. “Local authorities should acquire the power to use empty homes as temporary accommodation for the homeless.” He also talked about local rough sleepers who’ve come to London from elsewhere in the country. “Partly it’s a problem of our lop-sided economy,” he said. “It’s great that London thrives, it’s great that the service sector in London has done its best to remain buoyant. But fundamentally we need to level up the rest of the country”. He praised Labour for saying that part of its social transformation fund will be administered in the North of England.
It was, though, Aiken who was able to come at the rough sleeping issue with the most direct experience of dealing with it. She didn’t sugar coat her message: more than half of local rough sleepers are from overseas and “only three per cent are Westminster residents,” she said. “We in Westminster are dealing with not just a national but an international crisis”. She said that in partnership with local charities, St Mungo’s, the Passage and others, 80 per cent of rough sleepers found in Westminster do not experience a second night out. However, a large cohort, including many from Eastern Europe, are harder to help. “The vast majority, sadly, are modern slaves,” Aiken said. “This is organised crime.”
Then there’s the drug market. In 2016, when she was Westminster’s cabinet member for public protection, Aiken wrote about the impact of the drug spice, a powerful synthetic cannabis. At the hustings she said it had accounted for the death of 20 rough sleepers in the borough. “It is the most filthy drug you will ever come across,” she said. “The dealers were targeting the most vulnerable on our streets.” She related lobbying the government to enable the police to use stronger powers. As an MP, she would be able to bring her experience to bear, she said.
Other questions concerned immigration and skills, greening the economy and aviation. But let’s fast forward to the last one: “Would you speak for London in the House”?
Umunna said he hates the phrase “left behind communities” because it seems to exclude London with its “ridiculous poverty rates” and “acute problems on every single social scale” – problems that won’t be solved by leaving the European Union, in his view. Polanski said that as someone living in short-term housing and embedded in London’s gig economy he had a special insight, and mentioned in passing that he’s [again] running for the London Assembly next year. He’s third on the Greens’ list of Londonwide candidates for Assembly seats filled under a form of proportional representation.
Nardell assured the questioner that he would oblige, saying “I think it’s wrong to counterpose speaking up for London with speaking up for development in the rest of the country”. He added, though: “Those festering resentments actually have some substance. If you look at the per capita spending on, say, big infrastructure projects, particularly public transport, London does leave other parts of the country behind.”
Aiken cited her work with the cross-party body London Councils, saying, “You have to take the politics out of many of these issues like infrastructure and housing,” and then revealed that, “Bizarrely, I had a meeting last week with the Mayor – he and I don’t always see eye to eye – but he wished me good luck and said ‘One thing you need to do if and when you get into the House is bring together the London MPs and work together, because that’s missing'”. She promised to accept Sadiq Khan’s advice and “set up a much more cohesive group of London MPs”.
It was an excellent event and all four candidates spoke well. It was enlightening for demonstrating that London business people are not only concerned about rates and taxes, but about air quality and the vulnerable too. And it helped to focus where the candidates stand on some of the key questions, not only about the Cities of London & Westminster constituency but also about London in general and its relationship with the rest of the UK.
The seat’s electors should welcome Nickie Aiken’s candour about rough sleeping. One member of the audience, a young woman with some East European heritage, said afterwards that she thought the council leader sounded harsh. Maybe. And maybe Aiken’s proposed remedies, which weren’t spelled out at length, would not be the best ones. But dealing with this problem is incredibly hard and won’t be solved by moralising and denial. Aiken’s promise to try to mobilise London MPs if she wins was welcome too. There is, as she will know, already an All Party Parliamentary Group for London, but the more effective such a forum can be be made, the better.
Zack Polanski’s life experience is rich and varied. However, his claim that tens of thousands of Central London properties lie empty seems to overstate the position. The most recent government figures say there were 304 long-term empty homes – meaning they had been vacant for more than six months – in the whole of Westminster last October, not just the part of it in Two Cities, and 244 in the City. Croydon, by contrast, had over 1,500. Across Greater London as a whole the “empties” figure was 22,481. There is a popular believe that the capital is full of vacant “buy to leave” properties, but today’s empty homes total is about half that of 15 years ago. And “pairing up” rough sleepers and other homeless people with such dwellings would not be easy. Aside from the legal issues, they would have to be of the right type and size and in the right locations for those with no proper home. Empty homes should be discouraged, but proposing giving them to London’s homeless is not the silver bullet solution often claimed.
Nardell’s stance on London was good up to a point – the UK’s heavy dependence on the capital, not least for its enormous annual “tax export”, is undesirable. But changing that will take more than relocating Treasury officials, and there are other ways of calculating the public transport funding London receives: the amount spent per passenger journey in London, whose population swells during working hours, is far lower than the national average. Labour’s leaders have fed anti-London feeling during this campaign, and that is both divisive and misleading. The (very strong) case for improved investment in the North can be made perfectly well without it.
Which brings us to Chuka Umunna, whose Labour and Green opponents could have been forgiven for pointing out to him that those huge spending cuts he mentioned were partly delivered by Lib Dems in the coalition government. But in stating that this is a Brexit election, Umunna aligned himself with the nation’s voters – and probably many of those of Two Cities – in a way that Jeremy Corbyn won’t. He reminded the hustings audience that although the Lib Dems want to revoke Article 50, they would also back a second referendum. The Peoples’ Vote campaign has urged people to vote for him.
Two Cities Tory supporters who are ready to back Brexit will surely vote for Aiken. For Remainers of all leanings, the decision is trickier. Labour has eyed the seat since reducing Mark Field’s majority to just 3,148 two years ago. But now the bookies have the Lib Dem as strong second favourite. Umunna senses Remainer Tories flowing his way as they never would to Labour and hopes Labour supporters will be willing to lend their votes to him in the Remain cause. The scale of defections to him from the two larger parties may well define how this particular tale of Two Cities ends.
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